The Listening Man
“For Rosemary – Who qualifies for the ‘Listening Woman’ title I once used. –Tony Hillerman”
That inscription ranks with the most cherished compliments I have received in my life. But much as I love to know that he valued me as a good listener, I have to admit, it was easy to listen to Tony Hillerman. In fact, it was a breeze.
Like so many other people who came to know and love Tony Hillerman and his work, I first met him at a book-signing event. Working on assignment for a newspaper, I figured that while the occasion and the man would become indelible memories for me, I would be sure to fade into a sea of media faces in the mystery writer’s recollection.I soon discovered that I was, as Tony would put it, “dead wrong.” I could not know then that I would have the privilege of co-editing The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories and A New Omnibus of Crime with this man. When I was putting together my first book, The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers (G.K. Hall, 1994), Tony was on my wish list of interviewees. It seemed a long shot but nevertheless I sat down and wrote a letter beginning, “Dear Mr. Hillerman . . .” To my delight, I received an immediate reply, inviting me to interview the author in his home on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Arriving at his door after the long trip from Boston, Massachusetts, I again referred to the author as “Mr. Hillerman” as I greeted him. “Well, Ms. Herbert, you can call me Tony,” he said, smiling. “But do you know, I appreciate that you called me ‘Mr. Hillerman.’ It was one of the things that made me remember you from that time you interviewed me in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I find that politeness refreshing.” For my part, I found it intensely stimulating to hear Tony talk about his life and work in an interview that lasted for hours, during which he even showed me a manuscript in progress and asked my opinion of a proposed plot twist. Although Tony would have shrugged off any extolling of his own importance, I felt not just trusted but honored to be privy to that secret in his plot. When Oxford University Press asked me to find an important American mystery writer to co-edit The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories with me, Tony leapt to mind. But I wondered if he could make time for the project. So I offered to do all the groundwork and to write all the essays introducing each story and author. I told him all he would have to do is decide on the final contents and write a preface. Tony told me, “That’s not fair. I insist on writing my share of the essays. And I’ll do the preface, too.” And he was true to his word. More recently, when I approached Oxford University Press to put together an anthology that would begin where Dorothy L. Sayers’ landmark 1928 anthology, The Omnibus of Crime, left off, Tony readily agreed to edit it with me. And so we launched into selecting stories to represent three quarters of a century of developments in our beloved genre. We both knew it was a tall order to walk in the footsteps of Dorothy L. Sayers, but we were absolutely game to give it a try. To honor Sayers, we decided to call our book A New Omnibus of Crime. But while, like her volume, ours would be packed with stories that have crime at their hearts, our Omnibus was destined to speed at a faster pace than Sayers’, and to showcase crime writing in profoundly changing times. As Tony wrote in his “Preface” to our book, Sayers’ The Omnibus of Crime “was and is a masterwork and a treasure. But, as Bob Dylan musically warned us, ‘The times they are a-changin’. “And so has crime and the nature of mystery and detective fiction. . . . Therefore after seventy-five years which have included global warfare, the rise and fall of nations, the advent of space flight, motorized roller skates, crack cocaine, political correctness, and all sorts of other innovations, Rosemary Herbert and I feel the time is ripe for another look at what has become the most read form of printed literature on the planet.” “How’s that for a start, Rosemary?” Tony asked me after reading those paragraphs to me out loud. Am I stealing anything you want to say in your ‘Introduction’?” We were sitting side-by-side at two computers in his home office. I read him the opening words of my piece. It was clear we were working in tandem, without stealing one another’s thunder. And I was not just listening to Tony. He was listening to me. When we turned back to our computer screens, Tony proved himself to be just as polite to Sayers as I had once been to him. “With Miss Sayers,” he wrote, “and readers of today and tomorrow—in mind, we put together A New Omnibus of Crime. We think it does a fair job of representing the strengths of the crime writing genre in our time. Like her book, we hope it will also stand the test of time.” While Tony is not here to celebrate the paperback release of our book, I’m proud to attest that his taste, his love and knowledge of the genre, and his voice are all alive in the book that was my very great joy to co-edit with him. Rosemary Herbert co-edited A New Omnibus of Crime and The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories with Tony Hillerman, and served as editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, all published by Oxford University Press. Her forthcoming mystery novel, Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery will be published by Down East Books in October.
Tony Hillerman created the celebrated Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries, set in New Mexico. He was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.